Evan Turner: 4 years, $70 million.
Moe Harkless: 4 years, $42 million.
Meyers Leonard: 4 years, $41 million.
Another 4 or 5 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs: Priceless?
That’s the Portland Trail Blazers’ offseason in a nutshell. They paid a premium for continuity—and possibly for the same result next season and beyond.
Make no mistake, the Blazers were one of the 2015-16 NBA season’s feel-good stories. They lost elite power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio in free agency. Most assumed the loss would be a crippling blow for Portland and that the team would go into rebuilding mode, but instead, the franchise rebuilt on the fly. Actually, they made the second round of the playoffs—one round further than they advanced the previous season with Aldridge.
But that playoff result is slightly deceiving. Yes, Portland’s 5 seed in last year’s Western Conference was still a nice accomplishment, but would they have beaten the favored 4th-seeded LA Clippers in the first round without the injuries to Clippers’ stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? Probably not.
Then comes the offseason. Let’s first acknowledge that almost every free agent was “overpaid” this summer because the salary cap ballooned from $70 million to $94 million. Huge salaries for seemingly average players is the new normal in this league. Still, it’s puzzling for the Blazers to commit that kind of money to Crabbe, Turner, Harkless, and Leonard—all of whom might be backups on their team this coming season. Turner, a decent all-around player but a mediocre shooter, might start at small forward if he can wrestle away that spot from the Blazers’ starting 3 from last season, Al-Farouq Aminu. That seems like a toss-up to me. Leonard, a stretch 4 who can also play center, started 10 of the 61 games he played for Portland last season. Crabbe is entrenched as C.J. McCollum’s backup at shooting guard; Portland chose to match Brooklyn's massive offer to the restricted free agent. Harkless is likely the team’s 3rd-string small forward behind Aminu and Turner (although Aminu might play some minutes at power forward).
Among those signings, Turner is the only newcomer to Portland’s roster. Another newcomer, center Festus Ezeli, was actually brought in on a much more reasonable contract of two years and $15 million. But none of these players—the additions or the retentions—are game-changers. I can’t question the four year, $106 million extension the Blazers just gave McCollum, who averaged 20.8 points per game last season while earning the league’s Most Improved Player award. He's their second-best player, behind Damian Lillard, and a major building block for their future. But the totality of Portland’s offseason feels like nothing more than a lateral move for this coming season and a detriment to the franchise’s future salary cap flexibility.
The Warriors and Spurs are widely presumed to be the West’s top two teams for next season. While the Thunder are likely to take a step back after Kevin Durant’s departure, the Clippers—with Paul and Griffin returning from their injuries—are the third-best team on paper. Portland’s ceiling looks like the 4 seed. They were the 5 seed last year, the 4 seed (as a divisional winner with the conference’s 5th-best record) in 2014-15, and the 5 seed in 2013-14. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong and crack the West's top 3, but on the surface it seems that all they did this offseason was spend a whole lot to maintain the status quo both short-term and long-term. If I were the Blazers’ GM, I would’ve signed some cheaper backups and maintained more long-term flexibility—possibly to attract another star to complement McCollum and Lillard as the franchise cornerstones.